On a lilac-scented Sunday afternoon in late May, Toronto's mayor John Sewell, clutching a bull horn, loped along the streets of South Park-dale leading a band of about 200 Torontonians on a tour of the local horrors known as bachelorettes. “There’s one, folks,” he shouted,pointing to a stark, square, stuccoed building wedged between two well-kept Edwardian houses on Dunn Avenue. The structure held 30 one-room apartments, each the size of a horse’s stall, with its own bathroom and kitchen —and each existed in direct contravention of the city’s zoning bylaws. The crowd murmured disapproval.
Bachelorettes are not a new problem in the 100-year-old Parkdale community. For the past five years landlords have been busily converting oversized rooming houses into more of the profitable little cells. And the idea has now spread through rooming-house properties in the Annex and Cabbagetown areas of the city. Then, last January, Sewell assigned a task force to examine the situation. Its report, completed in April, forms the basis for resolutions that will come before city council on June 25. In the past, scandals have plagued the city’s building department, which has seen officials charged with municipal corruption and breach of trust in connection with payoffs over illegal conversions. Parkdale residents see themselves as victims of slow-acting bureaucracy, and are angry about the unsettling influence the sudden influx of semi-transient singles has had on their community.
Alderman Barbara Adams, 31, was a popular figure on the mayor’s stroll. The first chairperson of the Parkdale Working Group on Bachelorettes, she has spent the past three years struggling with the question of what to do about the 200 bachelorette buildings put up in the 35 blocks of South Parkdale.
“It’s a crucial issue,” she says, “and now at last it’s being treated as such.”
Yet, Adams, the mayor and two other aldermen who worked on the 20-page task force report admit that Toronto needs bachelorettes. Their quibble lies with ensuring a humane environment for both tenants and neighbors. According to a recent federal housing survey, Metro Toronto is the toughest place in Canada to find an apartment. The vacancy rate is .7 per cent, which means that only one out of every 125 apartments is available and the ratio is even more disproportionate in the downtown area. All of which paints a bleak housing picture for single apartment hunters who make up one-third of the city’s population.
Reports from Parkdale residents indicate an increase in drug trafficking, prostitution and harassment of women and the elderly on the streets. “Ninetyfour per cent of the rental buildings in South Parkdale are owned by absentee landlords,” Adams says. “They don’t know or care about what’s going on.”
The task force’s main recommendations involve creating a “cleanup team” headed by a lawyer with the assistance of various city departments to track down illegals and enforce the bylaws. But it takes about nine months to get a landlord into court, while in the meantime his units continue to be illegally rented or, in the case of about 50 Parkdale buildings, they are boarded up indefinitely.
One of John Sewell’s walking band asked why the city didn’t just buy out the bad guys and make a fresh start. “Expropriation is out of the question,” said the mayor firmly. “We’re not going to reward these guys for doing illegal stuff.” The people murmured approval.
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